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Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World


Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World Armstrong, Jennifer.  1998.  Shipwreck at the bottom of the world:  The extraordinary true story of Shackleton and the Endurance.  New York:  Crown Publishers.  ISBN:  0517800136.

This is the riveting story of twenty-seven men who fight for survival in the toughest climate on Earth.  Sir Earnest Shackleton leads the expedition that intends to be the first to cross the Antarctic, but instead becomes a nineteen-month struggle to get back to civilization after their boat is destroyed in the ice of the Antarctic circle.

Thorough research by author Jennifer Armstrong is the scaffolding on which this thorough account is built.   In her acknowledgements (p.128) and bibliography (p.129), Armstrong reveals her extensive research and numerous sources.  Her access to primary sources at the Scott Polar Research Institute (a logbook of one of the sailors, original photography from the trip) add details of both the logistics of the trip and also aspects such as the relationships between the men during their ordeal. 

The story unfolds in a manner that gives the reader the ability to follow the steps of the stranded sailors day-by-day.  Readers are able to chart their progress as it is described in the text on maps showing the terrain and routes taken by Shackelford on both Antarctica and South Georgia Island.  The book is divided into logical chapters that have titles that hint at what is to come and seem to mark significant changes in the journey.  Some chapters begin with scientific information that impart information vital to understanding.  As an issue arises in the story that needs some background scientific information, Armstrong presents this in a precise manner and then goes on to recount how this was used during the sailors' journey.  One example would be the chapter titled Into the Boats (p.72).  Armstrong begins with a six paragraph history and explanation of the tools the sailors used to track the location of the Endurance, and then segues into the rest of the chapter which deals with the crew navigating the icy waters of the Antarctic in their search for dry land.

While graphic design elements using different map symbols (Compass Rose, dotted lines with arrows) add to the theme of the story, it is expedition photographer Frank Hurley's pictures from the actual journey that give the reader an accurate picture of the dire situation.  The haunting faces stand out in stark contrast to the frozen landscape and offer information in addition to the text.  What a disappointment to read that some photographs had to be destroyed during the course of the journey. (p.55)

Armstrong's passion for telling the story of the sailors from all angles is evident in her attention to many aspects of the story.  Not only does she recount the journey, but she also delves into Shackelford and his skill as a leader.  This adds an interesting look into the human experience and allows readers to absorb information about the qualities of a good leader.  Armstrong's extensive index lists twenty pages that give information about Shackelton and his leadership of his men.  A particularly poignant moment is when Shackelton, called "The Boss" by his crew, returns to rescue the men who stayed behind on Elephant Island. " "We knew you'd come back," one of the men said to him.  As the Boss said later, it was the highest compliment he had ever been paid." (p.123)

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Holly S.
Graduate Student at Texas Woman's University